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Program Notes: Mendelssohn, Montgomery, and Frank

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

By Tim Munro

Saturday, October 31, 2020 at 11:00am

Sunday, November 8, 2020 at 3:00pm

Xiaoxiao Qiang, violin Jessica Cheng, violin Andrea Jarrett, violin Asako Kuboki, violin Jonathan Chu, viola Andrew Francois, viola Jennifer Humphreys, cello Alvin McCall, cello


GABRIELA LENA FRANK Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout (selections)

MENDELSSOHN Octet in E-flat major, op. 20


You have taken your seats. Now, look to your left and right: empty seats. It is strange, certainly. But perhaps in this strangeness there is an opportunity.

When musicians gather together, without an audience, their music-making takes on a different quality. Laughter fills the room, and the playing loosens, becomes wilder. What if Covid-times allow us a glimpse into a private world, capturing the free-wheeling spirit of a private jam session?

Jessie Montgomery’s Strum and Gabriela Lena Frank’s Leyendas both dance with abandon. And Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet provides a feast among friends, a chance to gather with joy.


Jessie Montgomery

Born 1981, New York, New York


Montgomery is a violinist and composer whose music is heard across the country. She is a member of the Catalyst Quartet and plays with the Silk Road Ensemble and Sphinx Virtuosi. Recent works include a nonet inspired by the Great Migration, and a reimagining of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha.

“I’ve always been interested in trying to find the intersection between different types of music,” she has said. “I imagine that music is a meeting place at which all people can converse about their unique differences and common stories.”

Strum is a celebration of “American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement,” writes Montgomery. Its title refers to the guitar-like plucking of the strings that plays many roles: floating hum, earthy groove, rapturous thrum.

“The piece begins with fleeting nostalgia.” Melodies weave in, over, and between layers of strumming. Several minutes in, there is a shift in gears. The music shifts, “transforming into ecstatic celebration.”

First performance: April 2006 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by the Providence String Quartet

First SLSO performance: These concerts

Scoring: String quartet

Performance time: Approximately 8 minutes


Gabriela Lena Frank

Born September 26, 1972, Berkeley, California

Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout

“There's usually a story line behind my music; a scenario or character,” writes composer and pianist Gabriela Lena Frank. Her musical tales are often inspired by her mother’s Peruvian heritage, and Frank’s own extensive travels across South America.

Frank is currently Composer-in-Residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra and was named one of the most significant women composers in history by the Washington Post. She has written works that tell the story of the Spanish conquest of South America, the folk tale of La Llorona (“The Weeping Woman”), and the musical traditions ofEl Día de los Muertos (“the Day of the Dead”).

Leyendas is a musical celebration of diversity. The term mestizaje refers to the cultural and ethnic mosaic in Central and South America. In Leyendas, Frank imagines a place “where cultures can coexist without the subjugation of one by the other,” where western classical music and Andean musical traditions speak to one another as equals.

Three of Leyendas’s six movements will be performed in this concert. Although the work is written for a traditional string quartet, Frank evokes the sound of traditional Peruvian instruments, as she details in her descriptions:

“Chasqui” depicts a legendary figure from the Inca period, the chasqui runner, who sprinted great distances to deliver messages between towns separated from one another by the Andean peaks. The chasqui needed to travel light. [So I have chosen] the charango, a high-pitched cousin of the guitar, and the lightweight bamboo quena flute, both of which are featured in this movement.

“Toyos” depicts one of the most recognizable instruments of the Andes, the panpipe. One of the largest kinds is the breathy toyo which requires great stamina and lung power, and is often played in parallel fourths or fifths.

“Coqueteos” is a flirtatious love song sung by gallant men known as romanceros. As such, it is direct in its harmonic expression, bold, and festive. The romanceros sing in harmony with one another against a backdrop of guitars which I think of as a vendaval de guitarras (“storm of guitars”).

First Performance: July 27, 2001, in South Hadley, Massachusetts, by the Chiara Quartet First SLSO performance: These concerts

Scoring: String quartet

Performance time: Approximately 24 minutes


Felix Mendelssohn

Born February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany

Died November 4, 1847, Leipzig, Germany

Octet in E-flat major for Strings, op. 20

Oh, to have met Felix Mendelssohn as a teenager…

“He had the appearance of an angel,” said one writer; “almost supernatural beauty,” said another. He was already a complete musician: a skilled improvisor, sight-reader, and composer. His intellectual dexterity dazzled all. And he was a talented visual artist.

Mendelssohn was no flash-in-the-pan. He carried his 15-year-old self with the bearing and maturity of a much older person, and his music already has the fingerprints of the mature Mendelssohn: charm, skill, beauty, emotional directness.

When he wrote the Octet, his family had recently moved to a large house in the countryside. They squeezed large audiences for weekly concerts. Mendelssohn played violin, viola, and piano, learning how to write for ensemble by experiencing it from the inside.

There is almost no precedent for the Octet’s instrumentation, double string quartet. Anticipating confusion, Mendelssohn wrote in a note, “This Octet must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strongly emphasized.”

The Octet hovers somewhere between the chamber parlor and the orchestral hall. It pushes all eight players to ensemble virtuosity, but its challenges for the first violin make it occasionally feel like a violin concerto.

The shortest movement is also its most evocative, a Scherzo inspired by a stanza from Faust by his mentor, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

The flight of the clouds and the veil of mist

Are lighted from above.

A breeze in the leaves, a wind in the reeds,

And all has vanished.

First public performance: January 30, 1836, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus

First SLSO performance: January 18, 1951, Vladimir Golschmann conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: May 3, 1982, Jacques Israelievitch, Jenny Jones, Brent Akins, Deborah Bloom, violins; Thomas Dumm and Katy Mattis, violas; and John Sant’Ambrogio and Savely Schuster, cellos

Scoring: String octet (4 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos)

Performance time: Approximately 33 minutes


Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly-behaved orange cat.


Jim Weis
Jim Weis
Mar 07, 2021

Thoroughly enjoyed the concert!! I do have a question, though. In the Mendelssohn Octet the violins and violas were standing for the piece (bravo to the musicians for their endurance!). Who decides the staging? Is it suggested by the composer, do the musicians themselves make the call based on the needs and energy of the piece, or is there a music/staging director who decides?

Mar 08, 2021
Replying to

Thanks for your question, Jim. Usually the conductor makes those decisions. But since this performance was without a conductor, the musicians decided to stand, which is typical for this piece. Also, it's often an artistic choice with larger-scale chamber music and works performed without a conductor. Standing allows the performers to move more freely, which helps with the non-verbal communications necessary between musicians without the direction of a conductor. So glad you enjoyed the concert!

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